In some ways, Charlotte Catholic’s 49-18 victory over Kannapolis A.L. Brown last Friday night was bittersweet for Ryan Manion.
Sure, the win had helped Manion and the third-seeded Cougars advance to the Class 3AA state semifinals and set up a game at second-seeded Statesville the day after Thanksgiving. But the torturous part for the uber-productive senior linebacker was the reality that the night also marked the last time he’d walk out of Jack Keffer Stadium in a Catholic uniform.
And that uniform means everything to Manion.
As is the case for many players on the squad, Manion is a legacy. His father, Mike, played linebacker and guard for Catholic in the early 1980s before matriculating to the U.S. Military Academy, also known as Army, and later serving five years in the Armed Forces.
Manion eventually wants to follow a similar path. But first, he wants to complete his ultimate high school mission: helping the team he’s dreamed of playing for since he was a toddler win a state championship.
“I’ve been here the majority of my childhood,” Manion said as he scanned the fast-emptying stadium several minutes after the dominating win over A.L. Brown.
“I went to St. Matthew (Catholic School) and Holy Trinity (Catholic Middle School). I used to come to all the games as a child, and it feels good to be out here now. To win a state title with all these guys I’ve grown up with would mean so much to me. The state championship is always our main goal, and I always remind the guys of that.”
Manion, who was chosen as a team captain before the season, hasn’t just done it with lip service. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder registered 84 tackles during the regular season, ranking behind only fellow senior linebacker Kevin Kirchmer (99) in that category for the Cougars. In the Nov. 16 win over A.L. Brown, both players shined, as Kirchmer intercepted a pass as the Wonders were near the end zone threatening to score, and Manion manned the middle and helped limit running back Kalif Phillips’ effectiveness.
Manion also assisted on Charlotte Catholic’s kickoff coverage and return teams.
“He’s just a tough kid,” Cougars coach Jim Oddo said of Manion. “He’s solid. He plays hard. He’s very competitive. He’s everything you want in a football player. He helps us a lot.”
But Manion wants to help others –- many others. That’s why, as much as he loves his Charlotte Catholic garb, he one day wants to wear a different uniform: a military uniform.
Manion already has received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, and he’s excited about the possibility of enrolling at the Annapolis, Md., campus – that’s if he doesn’t receive an appointment from his father’s college alma mater.
“I’m also trying to get into West Point and send my game films over to them and possibly get recruited by them,” Manion said. “Army, Navy, Air Force – I’d be pleased to go to any of those. Army’s the main goal, but definitely serving my country is in my future.
“My dad used to be in the military, and I really admire him for that. He’s my role model. But on a personal level, I just recognize the importance of values that our country needs. I’m just trying to put in the effort to make that dream come true. I realize what our country’s given me, and I just want to give back to my country.”
Manion’s work ethic is evident on and off the field. In the classroom, he carries a 4.43 GPA. His favorite subject, physics, requires a great deal of work beyond the typical homework assignments and Manion said he enjoys that. It’s a mind-set that also carries over to the gridiron.
“I owe so much to my teammates, especially our defensive line, for all the tackles I get,” Manion said. “And anything else I’ve been able to do has been because of a lot of hard work. Our team motto is ‘Finish Strong,’ and every time we get on the field in practice, I remind the guys, ‘Hey, we need to finish strong.’ And when Friday rolls around, that’s what we do. It shows on game day, and we need to continue to do that if we want to win a championship.
“It’s just about the effort, the hard work and getting everybody together and knowing what the goal is. You’ve got to step up. As a senior captain, people rely on you to make plays on the field. I’m just doing my job.”
That will be of critical importance on Friday, Nov. 23, when the Cougars travel to Statesville for the state semifinals.
Statesville possesses one of the Carolinas’ top players in 230-pound quarterback/fullback Tristan Mumford, who’s committed to play linebacker at East Carolina after also receiving offers from North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest.
Adding to the drama is the fact that the Cougars have reached the state semifinals the past two seasons, only to lose to Shelby Crest each time.
“The third time’s the charm,” Manion said. “I think this time, we’re finally going all the way. The last couple years, we’ve had a great bunch of guys. We’ve definitely had the effort, the strength and the model to finish strong. We’re not going to change anything this year. We’re just going to continue to put out effort.
“At Catholic, we’re a family. A lot of us have been together since elementary school. Being a captain of the team, along with Collin Porter, an offensive lineman, I expected a lot of hard-fought games this season, so we’ll be ready. Our goal the whole time was to win a state championship, and we’re still on that road.”